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March 05, 2012  |   By Mike Hembree - SPEED.com

Hamlin Rebounds In Phoenix

Courtesy of Speed.com

After struggling through a 2011 season that fell far short of his expectations, Denny Hamlin bounced back into NASCAR prominence Sunday by closing strong and winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.

The win was Hamlin’s first with new crew chief Darian Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to the Sprint Cup championship last year but was booted from the Stewart-Haas Racing team at season’s end.

Kevin Harvick was trying to catch Hamlin in the closing miles of Sunday’s race, but Harvick ran out of fuel on the white-flag lap. He held on to finish second as Hamlin won easily.

Completing the top five were Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

Hamlin took the point lead with the victory. It perhaps was a bigger moment for Grubb, who found himself in the odd position of racing for – and winning – the championship with Stewart late last season while knowing his job wouldn’t be there in 2012.

“I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication, but I really don't think that way,” Grubb said. “I try to just think the high road all the time. I feel like I came into a very good situation. Mike Ford (former crew chief) built one heck of a team here with the 11 car, and the FedEx Toyota is obviously really strong. Joe Gibbs; organization is very strong.

“We're a united team. We're working together that way, and we are just going to keep doing it.”

The oft-used tactic of cutting off engines to save fuel then quickly restarting them bit Stewart late in the race. He lost a lap during a caution when he couldn’t refire his car and made it to the pits only with a push from a wrecker. He finished 22nd.

“I just shut the car off like we did at Daytona and turned it back on, and it never refired,” Stewart said. “That’s all I can tell you. I don’t know why it didn’t refire. I honestly don’t know. It’s not really my department. I just turned the switch back on, and it never refired. I don’t know why that was, but it definitely cost us a good day.”

Crew chief Steve Addington said a faulty circuit breaker apparently was the problem.

Johnson, perhaps motivated by the penalties his team absorbed for a Daytona infraction, charged forward and shared domination of the early parts of the race with Harvick.

Harvick took the lead on lap 17 and led through lap 59 – 43 straight. Johnson later surged to the front and had the race’s rocketship for 46 straight laps, leading 67 to 112.

Johnson had a three-second lead on lap 111 when Casey Mears brought out the third caution of the day after losing his brakes in turn two and slapping the wall.

Kyle Busch took only two tires during the pit-stop round and held the lead over Harvick, Keselowski and Johnson, who took four tires.

On lap 134, Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray were involved in an accident along the frontstretch, causing a caution that was of major benefit to Johnson, who was on the verge of pitting under green because of an apparent loose wheel.

Pit stops under the subsequent caution period left Johnson in 24th place and Kyle Busch in first.

Hamlin took the lead for good on lap 254, sprinting past Harvick on a restart.

The race had seven cautions, including one for a bumpup between Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman late in the day. Contact from Edwards as they raced side by side sent Newman into a slide and spin on lap 256 of 312.

After the race, Newman was not a happy camper.

“I’m 99 percent sure Carl Edwards didn’t do that on purpose, but I trusted him,” Newman said. “Now he can’t trust me because there is a lot to be had and lost. We lost a lot today (he finished 21st, Edwards 17th).

“I don’t know how much he lost, but that’s not the point. I don’t consider that a deliberate move by any means, [but] we know plenty of times in this sport, what comes around goes around.”